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Beekeeping group is creating a regional buzz

Forget wine tastings, Kris Papas has an alcohol-free alternative for kids and adults -- honey tastings! In fact, she held an impromptu tasting at the beekeepers' booth during last summer's Carlton County Fair.

Beekeepers by the hive
Beekeepers and Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers Association members and officers Larry Cook (from left), Roy Ober and Kris Papas stand near the organization's two demonstrative hives in Carlton. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal

Forget wine tastings, Kris Papas has an alcohol-free alternative for kids and adults -- honey tastings! In fact, she held an impromptu tasting at the beekeepers' booth during last summer's Carlton County Fair.

Like wine, honey takes on flavors from its surroundings.

"I opened five or six jars," Papas said, rattling off the honey types, "... basswood, choke cherry, wildflower, clover."

The she smiled.

"Goldenrod tastes good but it smells like dirty socks," Papas adds, noting that beekeepers will often let their bees keep the goldenrod honey to get them through the winter. "It's hard to get past the smell sometimes."

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Papas is a beekeeper and vice president of the Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers Association, which started in 2008 and now boasts 90 members from around the region. The group meets the fourth Monday of each month at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet, but keeps two demonstration and training hives in Carlton. They're hoping to move at least one of the hives to Zion's apple orchard to help with pollination and to further their education efforts.

Why does anyone deliberately want to handle bees?

"It's a very interesting insect, really," said Larry Cook, NMBA president.

"It's such a highly organized insect," said Roy Ober, club member and 4-H mentor. "A bee will emerge from its cell, and it will perform different duties in the hive as it ages. The young ones will clean the cells as other bees emerge and carry out dead bees. When they get older, they take nectar, then become wax makers and foragers. The more you learn about them, the more amazing they are.

"And you get honey," he added.

Papas explained that she got into beekeeping when her daughter, Kirsten (now a sixth-grader at Cloquet Middle School), started keeping bees for 4-H two years ago. Now the mother and daughter both keep hives. Papas said it's changed the way she looks at the world, because now she also considers the weather and other issues wondering how it will affect the bees.

On Monday, Papas, Cook and Ober met at the group's demonstration hive in Carlton. Only three bees were visible that brisk morning, a couple drones and one female worker bee. Inside the hives, they explained, the bees were "clustering" already.

"In winter, bees don't die or hibernate, they cluster," Cook said, explaining that the queen bee is at the center of the cluster -- where the temperature is a consistent 96 degrees Fahrenheit -- and the other bees rotate from the outside of the cluster to the inside and back out again. "They will go on a cleansing flight in the winter too, because no one (except the queen) is allowed to defecate in the hive. When the queen does, they carry it outside for her."

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Incidentally, the bees kick the drones (the only males in the hive) out when the temperature drops, because they are only needed to fertilize the queen's eggs and don't otherwise contribute.

To make it through the winter, a bee hive needs approximately 100 pounds of sugar as a food source, Cook explained. The bees will start at the bottom of the hive and eat their way up, provided the weather breaks often enough to jolt them into moving up a level, he said.

Depending on the winter, anywhere from a few to all the bees may die over the winter months, but a 50 percent loss is about average.

The beekeeping group is hoping the introduction of a number of Canadian queen bees -- versus the more common Italian queens -- will result in hardier bees (and smarter, added Papas).

The winter deaths are not to be confused with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) -- a phenomenon that has killed off more than 10 million beehives in North America since 2007 alone according to an article in US News and World Report in August.

Fortunately for local beekeepers, CCD isn't really an issue in the Northland.

"It's rare in hobby bees," Papas said.

"We're not really a big agricultural area," Ober added, referring to the fact that many scientists and others link the massive decline of certain bee colonies to various herbicides, pesticides and fungicides often used in farming.

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Cook talked about reading a story about a southern Minnesota beekeeper who lost almost all his bees shortly after a neighboring farm planted corn that was infused with a neonicotinoid insecticide.

"It was a windy day, and there was dust from the corn," Cook said. "His hives were dying within hours."

More than $30 billion worth of crops in the U.S. could be seriously at risk if the continuing die off of honeybees were to reach critical levels, according to US News and World Report.

Still, CCD could become a problem for hobby farmers here, because the massive die-offs make it more difficult for beekeepers to order bees to replenish hives. At the same time, hobby bee farmers could be part of the solution since their bees are largely unaffected.

Bees make good neighbors, Papas said. She and Kristin keep their hives at her cousin's home on Big Lake and the apple trees on the property have thrived since the bees moved in, she said. Cook told a similar story about a place near Wrenshall with apple trees that never bore fruit ... until he put a hive there. Now the trees hold so much fruit one actually cracked in half from the weight.

"Without bees, we'd basically have no fruits or vegetables," Papas said. "Basically just corn and grains (don't need to be pollinated)."

Here's another interesting bee fact: eating local honey can help with allergies. Papas said she's seen the evidence in her son, Michael, who suffered from allergy symptoms until he started eating Ober's honey. Now stationed in Texas in the Army, his symptoms have returned.

"He needs to find some local honey," Ober said.

Speaking of local honey ...

Before the beekeeping group can move one or both of its demonstration hives to Cloquet, they may have to appeal to the Cloquet Planning Commission and the City Council. Although city code doesn't specifically address bees, City Planning and Zoning Administrator Al Cottingham said he believes bees would fall under the sections addressing the keeping of undomesticated animals.

However, some would argue that bees have been "domesticated" for thousands of years. There is historical evidence that ancient Egyptians and Greeks practiced beekeeping and the modern system of beekeeping with removable frames has been in place in the United States since the 1850s. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to beekeepers as "apiculturists."

Cook said anyone interested in learning more about bees or beekeeping is welcome to join the group at its monthly meetings. Because of the holiday season, the next two meetings are not on the fourth Monday of the month as usual. The next meeting is set for Nov. 18 at Zion Lutheran Church. Doors open at 6 p.m.; meeting starts at 7 p.m. In December the group will meet Dec. 16.

Visit www.nemnbeekeepers.org for more information.

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTY
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